U.S. Rejects Tech Firms’ Request to Release Surveillance Data

The latest on your privacy, the NSA's PRISM project, and how the tech companies want to protect it better.

Silicon Valley asked for more transparency and the government has responded…With a resounding “no.”  The U.S. Department of Justice, in a filing with the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act Court this week, said it would not allow companies to disclose the number of requests for user information made by the government under its surveillance program.

Yahoo!, Google, LinkedIn, Facebook and Microsoft submitted separate filings that would have pushed the government toward greater transparency, allowing firms to share with customers more details about what they provide under Prism.  Not unexpectedly, the DOJ said today in a motion filed in the super secretive FISA court that to disclose the frequency of requests posed a risk to national security.

“If our adversaries know which platforms the Government does not surveil, they can communicate over those platforms when, for example, planning a terrorist attack or the theft of state secrets,” the DOJ said in its brief. AllThingsD has a rundown of the industry’s reaction to agency’s motion.

The DOJ’s position, if upheld, would be a blow to the tech community, which is under increasing pressure to tell consumers about the type of user data and frequency of requests made by the government.  In fact, one arm of the U.S. tech industry is claiming that the surveillance programs are putting U.S. cloud companies at a competitive disadvantage.

What remains unclear is how the FISA Court will rule. Reactions from the different branches of government have varied in the wake of Edward Snowden’s leaks.  President Obama and his administration have met repeatedly with tech CEOs and industry associations to address their concerns over surveillance disclosures, but according to Nate Cardozo, staff attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, those overtures might be window dressing in light of today’s DOJ filing.

“Not just in tone but in substance, this filing by the DOJ really flies in the face of the President’s statements that we can and must be more transparent,” Cardozo told SocialTimes.  “This filing shows that the Obama Administration isn’t really putting its money where its mouth is.”

He cites an August 9 press conference, where the president directed the intelligence community to make as much information available as possible.  Cardozo added that while the DOJ said they would like to comply in its motion, the Justice Department added that there’s an ‘unquestioned tradition of secrecy based on the vitally important need to protect national security.’ “

The tech industry is looking simultaneously for a legislative fix, as a number of transparency bills are winding their way through Congress.  EFF, along with 72 tech companies and civil liberties groups, signed a letter this week to the chair and ranking members of the U.S. Senate and House Judiciary Committees, voicing support for two bills moving through Congress.

“Specifically, we write to voice our strong support for S. 1452, the Surveillance Transparency Act of 2013, and H.R. 3035, the Surveillance Order Reporting Act of 2013, each of which would clarify that companies have the right to publish basic statistics about the government demands for user data that they receive.”

The letter, signed by Microsoft, Google, Yahoo!, Mozilla, Twitter among others, is on the Center for Democracy and Technology’s web site here.

Readers, do you think the tech companies should be allowed to share more information with users about what kind of data is given to the U.S. intelligence community?

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock

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